This article has been corrected since its original publication.
When it comes to the gender wage gap — American women, on average, make 80 cents to a man's dollar — feminists tend to blame discrimination. Conservatives, perhaps predictably, tend to blame women themselves, saying their personal choices and their supposed failure to take responsibility for themselves are the real cause.
"Want to close wage gap?" asks anti-feminist Christina Hoff Sommers in her pinned tweet. "Step one: Change your major from feminist dance therapy to electrical engineering."
A year and a half ago, a woman named Claire Wasserman found herself "frustrated with the wage and leadership gap." Taking conservatives at their word, she decided to start helping women help themselves. She started a profit-sharing company called Ladies Get Paid, dedicated to holding events and providing resources to women to push for bigger paychecks and more career opportunities. The company rapidly grew across the country as women started auxiliaries of their own, attracting hundreds of participants ready to take responsibility for closing that wage gap by the sweat of their own brows.
That's when they got sued by a group of "men's rights activists" who accused the organization of gender discrimination.
In August 2017, a man named Rich Allison attempted to get into a Ladies Get Paid event in San Diego that had been advertised as being for women and non-binary people only. Being male, he wasn't allowed in. As his complaint carefully noted, he was forced to drink in the main room of the bar and was charged the regular drink price instead of the discount those in the event room received. A month later, a man named George St. George did the same thing at an event that didn't serve alcohol, with the same results, a few miles up the West Coast in Santa Monica.
Both men then sued, using Alfred Rava, a San Diego lawyer with a long history of filing suits claiming that men are discriminated against in California.
Rava was at one time involved with a group called the National Coalition for Men, and was formerly listed both on tax documents and the group's website as its secretary. He told Salon in an email exchange that he had held no official post with the NCFM for "years," but described the group as "a great, inclusive organization, that educates and advocates for equal rights for women and men."
A close perusal of the group's website, however, suggests it is an anti-feminist organization that seeks to downplay both violence against women and sexual harassment, while claiming that men are the ones who are truly oppressed by purportedly powerful feminists. For instance, the group's Facebook page pushed the idea that Bill Cosby was a victim of some kind of conspiracy, after Cosby's recent conviction for sexual assault.
Recent posts on the coalition's blog work similar themes. At the height of the #MeToo movement in November, member Jim Jackson posted "a few quick thoughts on the current sexual abuse hysteria," arguing that "it seems that all male sexuality is potentially criminal nowadays," but complaining that there are "few restrictions on women’s sexuality" because women "can wear blatantly sexual makeup" and "expose much skin."
A February post by a member calling himself "Mr. Manners" argued that "all good men are being painted with a filthy brush laden with toxic misandry" and suggested that it was unfair for women to get redress for sexual harassment at work. Why? Because the author had heard about a man doing a job "where the worker had to stand all day," which he called a "real hardship," much worse than "if someone grabbed their behind."
Rava denied that he and the National Coalition for Men seek out feminist groups to sue for supposed gender discrimination against men. Instead, he said he had pursued Ladies Get Paid after several men contacted him and told him that they "were prohibited from entering solely because of their sex."
This story that Rava took the case only to fight discrimination has holes in it, however. For one thing, the plaintiff in the San Diego case, Rich Allison, has a long and public history of alleging gender discrimination, with Rava as his attorney. Earlier this year, this same duo complained to the city of San Diego about a "girls empowerment" camp that had refused to admit Allison's son. In 2014, Allison, again with Rava as his attorney, sued Chic CEO, a corporate networking group for women. They also sued AMC movie theaters in 2013 for offering free popcorn to federal employees during a 10-day promotion.
Claire Wasserman of Ladies Get Paid contested the notion that this lawsuit stemmed from a spontaneous response from men who sincerely wanted to participate in the group's events but were denied.
Two men came to another event after the group changed the policy, allowing men to come in, she explained. "They asked if they could come in and they were told yes, and they walked away. They didn’t want to go.”
Salon reached out to Allison, asking why he wanted to go the Ladies Get Paid event in the first place. He replied with a promise to answer the emailed questions, but had not done so as of publication.
Rava often scores out-of-court settlements because, for many of the people he sues, it's simply not worth the time and money to fight him in court. That's what happened in the Ladies Get Paid case, Wasserman said: "We just didn’t have the money to fight.” Wasserman said she is legally prevented from discussing the settlement, and Rava also claimed confidentiality. But in an earlier case, when Rava sued the Oakland Athletics for giving out "Mother's Day hats" to women as part of a 2004 promotion, a judge ruled in his favor and he settled the case for more than $500,000.
“I think these guys are part patent troll and part true believer," Wasserman said.
Salon did discover one case involving Rava where a defendant fought back and won. It's interesting.
In 2010, Rava sued a golf course owned by Donald Trump in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. The course had held a promotion to raise awareness for breast cancer that offered a discount to female golfers. The future president had the resources to fight back against the lawsuit and did so, winning a decision that affirmed, "breast cancer awareness is a sufficiently strong public policy to warrant the differential treatment," especially since "the vast majority of breast cancer sufferers are women."
Despite the fact that National Coalition for Men associates had once sued her boss, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos invited the group to a recent meeting about how to handle campus sexual violence. It also appears that the NCFM has denounced the Boy Scouts of America for the group's recent decision to change its name and identity to include girls.
For the women who spoke to Salon about their experiences with Ladies Get Paid, having a female-centric space felt useful in their fight for equal treatment in the workplace.
“There’s something that you get out of women supporting other women, and women encouraging other women to be successful, that you don’t get from coed spaces," said Stephanie Dawber, who credited the group for helping her "become really aware of my own self-worth, and to not settle for anything less than what I deserved" after facing serious personal and professional obstacles in the past.
“I’ve seen the kind of conversations that can happen when women feel safe and comfortable, not having to temper what they’re saying because they’re worried about what a man in the room is going to think," said Baily Hancock, a career coach who teaches courses for Ladies Get Paid.
"A lot of times in society, we don’t feel things are for women, by women," said Sage Quiamno, the digital media strategist for the organization, adding that they simply wanted "a space for women to actually be transparent and honest and talk about the things that happen to us in the workplace.”
The women who spoke to Salon all said they had noted the painful irony that a lawyer who claims he supports equality would go after a group that was established to help women achieve it.
Wasserman said that as a business owner she knows lawsuits are sometimes part of the deal, but she felt this particular case fell outside the bounds of normal litigation strategies. “We’re not being sued for [intellectual property]," she said. "We’re being sued for ideology, and it’s extremely personal."
The whole experience "started to feel like I was sucked up into the vortex," she noted, because of the background of national politics, including the election of Trump and the ongoing revelations of the #MeToo movement. "For all the reasons this is bigger than me, it was crushing emotionally," she added.
Now that the settlement has been reached, Ladies Get Paid is trying to get back on its feet, starting with a crowdfunding push to pay for the group's legal fees. Wasserman said she is still struggling with the stress from this experience but sounded an optimistic note, noting that after suffering a "very isolating" half-year in which she had to be silent about this legal struggle, she could finally "tell the community who we know will be very supportive of us."
"This is part of a bigger movement that’s going on -- you know, the backlash to women who get too loud," she said. "I’m so happy I finally get to talk about it.”